What does the Pope have to say about climate change?

On Thursday 18 June the Vatican issued the Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis titled ‘On Care for our Common Home’. There has been much comment on the news and social media about this papal statement, not least from climate change commentators, communicators and policy advocates welcoming the Pope’s engagement with the issue. I plan to write a longer essay about the Encyclical in due course, but in this short blog post I want to ask whether this Papal intervention really is about climate change – or about something else.

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‘Twin disaster’ and the politics of blaming in Accra floods

The Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra (Ghana), short Circle, is a major junction of trotro (local buses) routes across the city and beyond. Here a heterogeneous crowd of street vendors, trotro passengers, business men and women come across each other, meet and trade all kind of goods. At the centre of it is a maze of stalls where household goods, shoes, clothes, DVDs, cosmetics, and what not are sold. Petty traders balance huge baskets filled with ready-to-it food, kerchiefs and drinks between the buses that are waiting to fill up. Self-proclaimed priests climb buses to spread the gospel while passengers are waiting for departure. Circle is also the place to go in Accra to buy electronics (if you don’t want to go to the very expensive shops in the malls further away from the city centre). It is where one of the few multiple-storey buildings in Accra is located (the GCB tower, home to Ghana’s largest bank). Business lunches are held in air conditioned restaurants near the stopping point of shared taxis to the ‘Ministries’, where governmental agencies are located. At the end of Ring Road with its fancy clubs and wide lanes it is a major entry point to central Accra, rushed through by SUVs at night and almost invariably stuck with traffic at day. Lately engineers, construction workers and their machines have added to the buzz of the place as the intersection has been undergoing major redesign including a flyover to relief the traffic.

Circle also sits on the Odaw River, the major channel for storm water drainage in Accra. The channel is narrow, often filled with sediment and debris. Whenever the tropical rains of the rainy season set in, streets are flooded within few hours. In such event shop-owners lose goods, structures are damaged, sometimes cars washed away. The aftermaths include malaria and cholera outbreaks as standing water spurs mosquito breeding and hygienic conditions are difficult to maintain with dirty water flooding the streets.

The disaster on Wednesday June 3 however is unprecedented. After 6 hours of torrential rainfall, Circle was once again under water. Traders, passengers and cars were unable to stay on the market or on the road and reportedly sought refuge under one of the few solid roofs in the area – that of the Goil fuel station. The electricity went off, a generator was started to bring light, a spark came in contact with fuel that had spread in the floodwaters – so it was established few days later – and set the station in flames. The explosion cost an estimated number of 152 people’s lives. Bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Over 8000 people have been displaced by the floods, many of whom are now homeless and in urgent need of water and food. The city is in shock, the Nation in mourning, and Circle has become another place as a new, sad meaning is attached to it.

The sad event of last June has stirred a hornet’s nest: Representatives of the local government blame street vendors and settlers for blocking waterways. Agencies blame local government for not enforcing plans and laws. Experts blame engineers. Residents blame government for not preventing floods and for not delivering emergency aid. Ghanaians are blamed for their ‘attitude’ of dumping waste into gutters. This blaming-each-other is not new, it repeats itself every year between June and August when the heavy rains hit the city. Indeed, flooding in Accra is a perennial issue, widely reported on in the local media year in year out.

The same pattern of blaming is reflected in the reporting of the June 3 events which has spread beyond local news:

  • According to a former Mayor of Accra, “the public must (…) be blamed for littering indiscriminately”, and the local authority AMA is “complicit” in causing floods, by issuing permits for buildings on waterways (Daily Guide 09.06.2015). This view is contested as the “the tendency to always blame attitudinal behavior of Ghanaians for the floods provides a cheap escape for those whose responsibility it is to ensure that floods do not happen and even if they do its impact would not be as disastrous as what happened on Wednesday night“ (myjoyonline.com 06.06.2015) The city authorities are undertaking huge demolitions as “the president has vowed to take tough measures to stop people building illegally on stream beds during the dry months” one day after the disaster event (BBC 05.06.2015). This started a debate over whom to blame in social media and the legitimacy of demolitions.
  • Reportedly, Ghanaians are frustrated with the government that “has done too little to fix the longstanding conditions that led to city-wide flooding after heavy rains, which in turn meant so many people were taking shelter at the Goil gas station at Kwame Nkrumah Circle“ (Quartz Africa 08.06.2015). This is also evident in a pressure groups’ blaming of President John Mahama’s administration for the recent floods, mainly because 2 1/2 years after a 663 m US$ project for the improvement of sanitation and storm water drainage in Accra was launched, funds have not been released and there is no sign of the project being implemented (com 10.06.2015; Daily Guide 12.06.2015). Accordingly, the government is being blamed for not showing adequate commitment, and the Mayor is being pressured to resign (myjoyonline.com 08.06.2015; Daily Guide 08.06.2015). “Rituals” of politicians visiting scenes are considered dispensable and not helpful in restoring trust (Daily Guide 08.06.2015)
  • Further mutual blaming among professionals is targeted at “lazy” engineers and planning agencies (Daily Guide 09.06.2015).
  • Responding to announced spillage of the Weija Dam, residents of the Densu Delta accuse GWCL of exposing them to floods while GWCL blames them for building on waterways.

While the bouncing of responsibilities is not exceptional in aftermaths of disasters, discussions and decision-making on flood risk reduction in Accra seems to be particulary focused on ‘politics of blaming’. What is behind the mutual blaming of authorities and citizens? Parallels can be found in the framing of cholera outbreaks and sanitation last year that led to the – ineffective – ‘Sanitation Day’, a mandatory public clean up exercise. How does the blaming help to fix the problem of perennial flooding? Who is being accused of what? Often general references such as ‘the public’, ‘government’ don’t differentiate the different stakes and capacities people and representatives have in dealing with floods in Accra. Instead the bouncing of responsibilities seem to serve to hide underlying problems linked to the flood disaster that are – so it seems – currently not being tackled thus creating a ‘politics of blaming’. We want to point out two of them here (surely others can be thought of).

Firstly, the sole focus in the blaming illustrated above is on who causes floods in Accra. They therein gloss over the fact that impacts are so devastating because it is not merely the floods that have led to the catastrophe, but the interaction of multiple risks and hazards: The loss of shelter, access to water and electricity, and flood and fire disasters are all intrinsically linked. The June 3 event is referred to as a ‘twin’ disaster of flood and fire/explosion. Yet as the account of events shows they cannot be separated; the explosion would not have occurred had there been no flooding (and consequently no spreading of fuel in waters). At the same time the floods led to an explosion also because the fragile electricity system needs to be switched off any time a flooding occurs in order to prevent shortcuts – hence the necessity for a generator. The outcome would also not have been as detrimental had there been a more adequate shelter or simple roofing available to passengers and vendors. In fact, the dangerous location of fuel stations in Accra has been the concern of sub-metropolitan councils for a while as I learned at an AMA committee meeting in May 2014. In Mallam a petrol station has been blocking the waterway and causing floods for years. Some of these stations have now finally been closed down.

The floods are also reported to threaten water supply in Accra and to cause water insecurity among victims. Again, this is not only an impact from flooding, it is also caused by an instable water distribution system, and the shortage of clean water is a particular risk factor in the absence of basic sanitation.

The June 3 event thus showcases how different risks Accra residents are exposed to reproduce each other.

Risks are not only reproduced because hazards interact, but also because vulnerabilities are reproduced. Flood victims report not to have seen any of the promised assistance three days after the disaster and suspect “that those who are not victims receive relief items” (Graphic Online 08.06.2015). Such accusations are linked to a fundamental fear of not being able to recover. As property insurance barely exists those who have lost goods or homes to the floods are at serious risk from falling into the poverty trap. Victims of the blast include mothers and family heads who leave their families now particularly vulnerable to further loss and health risks. Under such circumstances post-flood outbreaks of malaria, cholera and water shortage are much more serious than they would be without flood-related losses. A one-time event of six hours can create lifetime poverty and enhanced vulnerability. An estimated number of 8000 people is directly affected by the June 3 floods in Accra and is now facing a downward spiral of vulnerability in one way or the other. A much larger number of people has been rendered homeless in the ongoing demolitions, and is now facing serious threats from further seasonal rainfalls.

Secondly, as much as Accra and Ghana are in shock, flood risk in Accra is extremely local. The list of places flooded or expected to be flooded is always the same. Would they be shown on a map, they would form a pattern that overlaps with that of aggregate poverty in Accra. Circle remains an exception as it is not one of the most impoverished areas in Accra. However as a standstill of any activities is an accepted practice during extreme rainfall in Accra, those most likely to be on the market after 6 hours of heavy rain are (homeless) street vendors, trotro drivers and small shop-owners. Where are the people for whom flooding is a life-threatening event? As simple as it is, this question is rarely addressed in media reports and apparently poorly embraced in disaster prevention.

Only by glossing over the place-specific and reproduced nature of vulnerability to flood risk can demolition exercises be justified. The director of the Ghana Institute of Planners stated that “demolition exercises must be well planned” (myjoyonline.com, 09.06.2015), without (here) further classifying in what ways. The events of the last 3 weeks have once again demonstrated that ad-hoc demolition of any structure that doesn’t comply with formal regulations does more harm than good. Enhanced vulnerability to the next flood event – particularly among those displaced – and erosion of public trust in authorities’ risk reduction measures are among the consequences. The escalating fight over the legitimacy of demolition moreover distracts from identifying and addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability to flood risk in Accra.

Urban planning has much more potential than to restrict development to specific areas that are considered to be safe. Nevertheless several questions arise: Which risks affect which people? What are the inequalities that shape adaptive capacities? Why is it that previous plans have not been enforced? If such questions would be addressed in urban (DRR) planning, this could be a first step in overcoming the ‘politics of blaming’, and towards the creation of a safe urban environment for all.

 

Fanny Frick comments on the recent flood events. Her PhD research is looking at flood risk and adaptation in Accra where she spent 4 months doing field work in 2014. Fanny is a joint PhD student between King’s College London and the Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany working with supervisors Mark Pelling and Frances Cleaver in King’s Water and Antje Bruns at Humboldt University. She wrote this blogpost together with Rossella Alba, a doctoral researcher at the WaterPower project.

Utilising Resilience for Improved Humanitarian Programming

Resilience offers a new opportunity to reopen the Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development (LRRD) debate and develop practical guidance for improved humanitarian programming. For decades practitioners, policy makers and academics alike have struggled with how to better align short term humanitarian aid and longer term development to reduce vulnerability and chronic poverty. Over the next year I will be visiting and researching up to 10 humanitarian and conflict response case studies and exploring exactly how resilience can be practically utilised to improve international assistance and strengthen community resilience.

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New paper on Darfur conflict and natural resources

War in Darfur has intensified – despite all the expert opinion expressed about the causes

King’s Water Member Brendan Bromwich considers the ongoing situation in Darfur and reflects on what we know about the environment, politics, and conflict

Over the course of this month both the UN and the African Union Security Councils are debating the renewal of the mandate of their joint peace-keeping force in Darfur. But if there have been two major peace agreements, why would a major peace-keeping force still be needed?

Perhaps two reasons: firstly, if the agreements were not sufficiently inclusive and representative and therefore rebel movements and militia continued fighting. And secondly, if the conflict is larger in scope and complexity than the agreement allows for. Arguably, both are true in Darfur.

The second of these reasons – the nature of and issues at stake in the Darfur conflict – was the subject of considerable academic and public debate in 2007-2008, and yet, despite the volume of opinion expressed, the peace processes are still not managing to cover all the different arenas of violence that we see today. It seems that the major upsurge in conflict and displacement in recent years may have as much, if not more, to do with unresolved and emerging issues of land as with the high politics of the formal peace process.

Perhaps the debate in foreign policy fora that set up a polemic between political and environmental narratives of the Darfur conflict did not serve those involved in Darfur’s search for peace as well as it might. It seems very reasonable to agree with the outcome of this debate in prioritising the political dynamics over the environmental. Nonetheless, the current violence over land cannot be ignored. There is enough evidence in Darfur for both sides of the conflict and natural resources debate to find support for their position – and in each case the remoteness of Darfur to foreign experts may provide convenient masking of the counterfactuals. Furthermore, control of land is, of course, a political issue, which again undermines the contrast between political and environmental analysis.

This new paper asks how we can move beyond selective reading of the conflict and avoid the trap of pitching politics against environmental determinism. One method, the paper argues, is to examine the debate that took place within Darfur – where the complexity of the conflict and the inconvenient counterfactuals cannot be ignored. The paper draws on material written in Darfur, and elsewhere in Sudan, during the period when the international debate was raging. It acknowledges both a conflict between Darfur and Khartoum relating to political concerns, and a network of local conflicts in which land and natural resources were a factor. The paper then considers the implications for longer term efforts to support peace in Darfur.

In time, a broad and inclusive political process will need to draw together the debate over Darfur’s role within Sudan and the complex resource disputes within Darfur. Governance arrangements across the Sahel are in a state of flux – and conflict seems to be a feature of these wider process of change. An academic debate that trades one priority off against the other is of little benefit to the Darfuris: they continue to be confronted by interconnected environmental and political pressures at the same time.

 

For more, see:

Nexus meets crisis: a review of conflict, natural resources and the humanitarian response in Darfur with reference to the water–energy–food nexus” in the International Journal of Water Resources Development Volume 31Issue 3, 2015, a special issue on “The Water-Food-Energy-Climate nexus in Global Drylands: the epitome of twenty-first century development?http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07900627.2015.1030495

 

Brendan Bromwich is studying for an MPhil in Geography and previously worked in Darfur and Khartoum from 2004-2013.

‘GeoCUP’: Linux System-on-a-Key for Geospatial Analysis Project

We have received funding to develop a system for managing and distributing a full Linux system-on-a-key to students on our new undergraduate pathway. We are looking for an Informatics student (PhD, MSc, or BSc) to research, recommend, develop and test an appropriate solution that meets our needs. Read on for more information.

Background

This Autumn, the Department of Geography is launching an innovative new undergraduate ‘pathway’ in Geocomputation and Spatial Analysis (GSA). The pathway responds to a recognised gap not only in our own module offerings, but across the offerings of UK universities as a whole: the need for geographers with the programming skills to process ‘big geo-data’ using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and able to tackle pressing geographical challenges in commercial, governmental, and third-sector data analysis and visualisation.

Effective delivery of this pathway will require students to store and manipulate large data sets, to install and manage new ‘code libraries’ and applications on-demand and as-needed, and to be able to collaborate flexibly on- and off-line across multiple platforms (mobile, personal, and institutional). Within the constraints of managed IT infrastructure these needs can only be met through the use of ‘bootable’ USB flash drives that provide a platform on which open-source geocomputation and spatial analysis tools can be hosted and run.

To meet this need this project will develop the GeoComputation USB Platform (GeoCUP). GeoCUP will allow students to manage and run a Linux-based operating system over which they have full administrative control. This capability is integral to successful learning on the GSA pathway as the innovative nature of student assignments and independent projects requires the use of compiled open source software libraries and tools.

This project therefore seeks to research, configure, develop, and test a management strategy to support this bootable USB flash drive approach so that it: i) enhances student experience of the College’s computing environment; ii) minimises the maintenance demands on staff as this approach cannot be supported by central IT; and iii) creates opportunities for other staff to deploy a similar system when flexibility and agility in computing are called for.

Swiss Army knife with USB key (swissarmy365.co.uk).

Objectives

There are several overarching objectives for how GeoCUP will improve the student learning experience:

  1. An operating system over which students have full control will allow them to maintain and customise their individual instance of GeoCUP to suit their personal computing needs. As the students develop competence in programming and analytical techniques, they will begin to pursue separate, distinct challenges requiring the ability to compile and install code libraries, or even entirely new applications, on-the-fly. This is impossible to achieve in a traditional, tightly-managed computing environment context.
  2. We will be able to maintain and update the ‘master version’ of GeoCUP so that incoming students to the pathway will always be working with the most up-to-date system possible. In addition, should a student lose a USB drive or suffer some other type of data loss, we will be able to quickly provide them with a fully-functioning and up-to-date version of GeoCUP from which to recover. We will also be able to enforce data-protection requirements such as the use of encrypted partitions to ensure that the USB flash drives are unusable and inaccessible without the student’s password.
  3. GeoCUP will be configured with the full set of programming support tools needed to ensure the development of computational (spatial) data analysis skills, including not only Enthought Canopy and QGIS, but also open collaboration and development tools used by technology firms such as PayPal and Google. Many of the required tools are not available at all through managed IT systems, these include: the GitHub versioning tool; the Postgres+PostGIS spatial database; the routino routing application; the RStudio IDE; Dropbox; and the Slack collaboration tool, amongst others. Our intention is to promote students’ employability by grounding their experience in a realistic computing environment as used by commercial and other organisations.

As a result of the ‘real world’ environment GeoCUP will provide, incidental – but by no means insignificant – benefits to student experience, including:

  1. The ‘Slack’ collaboration system functions on all computing platforms, including all major mobile ones, and creates a series of ‘channels’ across which students and staff can communicate in a way that more closely mirrors student preferences: content (including code) is ‘pushed’ in real-time to all devices, can be categorised using hashtags, and serves as a instantly-searchable archive of interactions. This complements the 1-to-1 and 1-to-many format of email and the KEATS ‘broadcasting’ tool, and is expected to encourage dynamic peer support and collaboration, while avoiding repeated “Can you tell me…” messages to staff.
  2. The GitHub version control platform is now the de facto standard for collaborative programming projects in all sectors. It also brings the additional benefit of mitigating data loss in the event of corruption, loss of a USB flash drive, or other unforeseen events. We will therefore be reinforcing for students the importance of integrating code-management into their workflow.
  3. Students will also be able to take advantage of more open, platform-independent cloud-computing resources such as Dropbox and Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is not possible on the existing Microsoft-based SharePoint solution.

More Information

Selected researcher will be paid in accordance with King’s College London guidelines. Project work can begin immediately and must be complete by late-August.

For more information about the project timeline and for expressions of interest (by Thurs 25 June), please contact Jonathan Reades or James Millington in the Department of Geography.